In the OnBeing podcast, Krista Tippett opens her interview asking the interviewee about the spiritual and religious background of their childhood. It takes the interview to a deeper, more meaningful place right away. Each time I hear her ask the question, I wonder what I would say. My background was Baptist, as most of y’all know, and a practicing Baptist at that, thanks to my grandmothers who took my brother and me to church when we’d stay the weekend with them. At home, when we were ready to go and didn’t duck below the windows so the driver wouldn’t see us, we’d take the church bus to Sunday School and service. As soon as I turned 16 and was able to drive myself, gifted as I’d been with my mom’s old car, I chose to attend church nearly every Sunday. And Sunday night. And Wednesday night sometimes, too. There was a pull to be in church, even though I couldn’t name it. I was listening for something I couldn’t quite hear but felt closer to when I was there.
In college, I thought I was just filling a graduation requirement by taking an Intro to Buddhism class. When I heard the word compassion, though, my ears perked up, and a light went on, illuminating Jesus in technicolor for me because that’s what Jesus is all about: compassion.
But the compassionate Jesus isn’t the everybody’s-boyfriend-Jesus. Compassionate Jesus knows our suffering and holds our hand to his chest until we realize that we have the strength, the courage to go on. Whatever sorrow or longing, regret or tragedy, Compassionate Jesus knows it, too. Whether our hands are held to our heart or lifted in prayer, maybe we’ll be in the presence of Christ and experience the triumph of Resurrection. We know the story: Jesus overcomes death and the grave. Easter is coming and has already come. We just kind of forget in the midst of our suffering and have to be reminded. When we do remember, we’re strengthened and ready to get up again and keep going.
We might find ourselves in that place, though, where we’re like the disciples. We think we have something figured out. We have a good thing going. Yet as we listen, we hear the words of Jesus telling us that things are going to change. Things are going to get bad and will get worse before they get better.
My son Avery has a difficult time keeping his room clean. (He’s 17 after all!) After some dire consequences were offered to him, he decided to make an effort. As he was showing me his progress, he said what any of us who have cleaned out a closet, fridge, or junk drawer know: “It gets worse before it gets better.” I told him I knew that and encouraged him to keep going.
But when Peter heard Jesus foretell his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection, does he look with understanding upon the Messiah? Does he say, “Right on, Jesus. Keep going!” Not at all. We don’t have exactly what Peter says, but he “rebukes” Jesus, likely reminding him that this messaging isn’t consistent with the healing and good news they they’ve been proclaiming. The foreshadowing or teaching wasn’t going to be good for their recruitment.
Jesus rebukes right back in the oft-quoted line: “Get behind me, Satan!” Not exactly how we imagine Compassionate Jesus speaking to us, but if we are listening well, we hear the truth of this line: “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” The disciples are probably enjoying this new adventure, traveling around, sharing the good news with others, being with Jesus when he heals and performs miracles that affirm God is at work, that liberation is at hand. Jesus is powerful; he’s the Messiah they’ve been looking for. As Jesus tells more of the story, enters the next level of his teaching, Peter speaks for all when he says that this can’t be. We don’t want things to change like that. Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing now. That’s a very human response, isn’t it?
Lessons and truths aren’t always hard to hear. Statistics about poverty, mortality rates, and violence we hear all day long. Drive it a little closer to home, however, and we get a little restless. How and when do the hungry get fed? What considerations do we make when choosing school, zip code, or subdivision/neighborhood to live in? Did we really listen to our cousin/classmate/friend as they question if they’ve been sexually assaulted, or do we blow it off and change the subject because if there is truth in what they say, the next steps are difficult. How we see the world and how the world sees us might change. My life is going to be impacted.
Are we listening to what Compassionate Jesus says to us? Compassionate Jesus can show tough love, too, saying, “You don’t want to to do the hard thing, face the hard truths, or realize your complicity? Get behind me, Satan!” Compassionate Jesus isn’t here to make our lives easy or comfortable. He’s here for divine things. Want to follow Jesus toward God’s glory? We’re told to take up our cross whenever and wherever we find it. Likely it will resonate with us because old scars will tingle, itch, or burn. Maybe we were a child who went hungry outside of school, so we fill the pantry when we can, help fill snack packs at the Samaritan Center, or make meals for others when they’re alone. Maybe we become active in PTO, the POA, or city council to make sure voices of our neighbors who are silenced or ignored get magnified. We do this not by talking about it but by seeking the people themselves, listening intently, learning ravenously, and sharing unpopular opinions–aka “hard truths”–that give us no personal advantage. Maybe we go with someone to a hearing, the unemployment office, or the clinic because they need the presence of someone whom they trust to embody Christ in that moment, to be the Compassionate Jesus they’ve heard about but haven’t experienced, longed for but never encountered.
Growing up Baptist, believing in Jesus, liking church, loving gospel music, there was a time when I would rather not admit any of those things. There are times even now when I know life could be easier if I didn’t follow this calling. (Many priests I’ve spoken with have a daydream of being a barista or a baker!) One day at the hospital during my Clinical Pastoral Education (chaplaincy training), a nurse paged me, the chaplain on duty. A woman in one of the critical care units needed a visit. As I made my way across the hospital, I wondered what she needed, what we would talk and pray about, but when I got there, the nurse told me that the woman didn’t, couldn’t speak. Maybe she saw my wide eyes and noticed my hesitation. She smiled and nodded at me to “go on.” I smiled, took the woman’s outstretched hand, and watched her eyes intently as I introduced myself. She could hear me just fine. I asked simple yes/no questions so she could respond with a nod or a turn of the head, gently. She was a woman of faith, all the more evident in that she began saying things, mouthing the words that she trusted I would and turned out that I could understand. “I know,” she’d mouth when I said God was with her. She raised her hands as she told me she prayed “all the time.” (When we’re not wearing masks, we read lips more often than we realize!) Her family was important. Somehow we got to a point where I learned she loved music from church, and as I sang “Amazing Grace”–a universal language of its own–she sang along, too. A peaceful smile was on her lips and in her eyes as we exchanged goodbyes, and I promised to check in the next day.
My cross that day was my love of Jesus, my love of music that speaks to my heart, mind, and soul. At that moment the cross wasn’t a burden but a gift. We were in the presence of Christ, she and I, and I still draw strength from that experience. It wasn’t about my success or glory. It was about being present, sharing a mutual love, and being vulnerable enough to empathize with another’s pain. It’s also about going through the hard times, the bad times, and not losing hope that Jesus promised. When we follow Jesus, our cross will present itself to us again and again. It may not be the same one, but it’s always the same invitation: are you willing to take up the cross and follow Jesus? If so, our world–your world–will never be the same.